Television Often Sends Mixed Messages on Issues of Mental Health
> 2/24/2006 10:32:05 AM

A recent Seattle Times article has really got me thinking. In the piece, "Doctors find little humor in TV's handling of painkillers," writer Noel Holston describes how many M.D.s have been bothered by the way that television programs handle the subject of painkiller addiction. Prominently mentioned are Will & Grace, in which one of the running gags is Karen's insistent alcoholism and pill popping, House, Fox's show about a disgruntled and handicapped, but brilliant doctor who needs pain meds just to make his rounds, and Without a Trace, in which an FBI agent played by Eric Close struggles with pain killers after being shot in the line of duty.

The doctors in the story comment, and with due cause, that TV is glamorizing the use of prescription painkillers as a recreational drug. Referring specifically to Will & Grace's Karen Dr. David Crausman, director of the Center for Healthful Living in Beverly Hills said:
"It's not a joke at all. It depicts a woman who's held hostage to her addiction. They're not showing her when she doesn't get her pain pill, when she doesn't have the alcohol. How she gets diarrhea, how she starts vomiting, how her skin will crawl, her legs will cramp. They don't show that, because that's not cute."

While I agree hole-heartedly with Crausman's assessment, the question that I wrestle with is that of Hollywood's responsibility to viewers in regards to treating mental health issues seriously. It is easy to pick on Will & Grace, because as a comedy, the production team is shooting for laughs, and so the response to a serious treatment of Karen's illness would certainly be negative and possibly even cost viewers and advertisers.

As Holton mentions, dramas like Without a Trace often do a better job of adding the appropriate weight to matters of addiction. Close's character's struggle with his painkiller addiction is a plot line that stretches across many shows, and it is often portrayed as a major weakness that endangers not only himself but his fellow officers as well. The same could be said of Fox's outrageously popular over-the-top drama 24. In an earlier season (I believe it was 3), Jack Bauer, the show's protagonist suffers with an addiction to heroin as a consequence of the brutal emotional and physical toll of his job. Again here the addiction is portrayed as one of Bauer's prominent weaknesses, even to the point that he is nearly removed from duty. In both of these dramas, addiction and, at least in the case of Bauer, depression are handled with a grittiness and weight that behooves there real world severity.

But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that the producers of either show are thinking about the public's perception of mental illness. In both of these shows the addiction plot lines clearly added to the drama of the situations. And I might argue that in the case of 24, Bauer's own victory over his heroin problem was a little too neat and easy. Although, to be fair, Bauer is a man among men, so clearly he could overcome a silly heroin problem.

In the case of comedy, the situation is often much stickier as writers and producers, as in the case of Will & Grace, are trying to score laughs from their characters' problems. One comedic program that handles the question of mental health with particular acuity is Fox's King of the Hill. For those not familiar with the show, the action centers around the Hill family and its patriarch Hank. They are as achingly American, often jingoistically so. But the show also espouses the virtues of moderation and acceptance. One of the main characters, Bill Dauterive, a high school friend of Hank's suffers from debilitating self-esteem issues and often clear-cut major depression. Indeed, in one episode Bill quips, "I'm so depressed, I can't even blink."

As in most comedies, Bill's depression is alternately treated with mockery and derision. Gags often come from Bill's overwrought presentation of his disorder, as in the quote above. But what separates King of the Hill from other comedies is the sensitivity and compassion with which depression is often treated. Bill, while sometimes painted with a sensationalist, pathetic brush, is a central player in the over arching narrative, and many episodes hinge on his finding some comfort and or remission in his symptoms. While the topic of actual treatment is rarely if ever broached in reference to Bill's sickness, Hank's kind, but often stern handling of his friend betrays a sensitivity that he rarely displays. Bill is, by and large, treated with equal respect and humanity as the rest of the shows cast of characters. His depression is rarely portrayed as a weakness, or a negative. Instead, as Hank might say, "it's just who he is."

Does King of the Hill hit all the right notes? Of course not, but I might argue that that is impossible in this day and age. Television programming is about making money, and to do that people want to be entertained. Producers have long shied away from challenging viewers, and mental health issues are a particularly difficult area in that respect. I wouldn't advocate a television environment dominated by political correctness, but as a viewer and as someone concerned about mental health issues, I would hope that producers might find a way to portray mental health issues such as depression and addiction in a realistic light. In the mean time, what we can hope is that those who watch programs like King of the Hill, Will & Grace or Without a Trace will engage the perceptions that the shows present and question their legitimacy and value.

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